What would happen to birds and the bees after a nuclear apocalypse? Studies of the wildlife around Chernobyl can give us a clue. An article in The Economist takes a look at a report on the bird life near the nuclear power plant that spread radioactive material around the countryside in a 1986 explosion.
When due allowance was made for habitat differences, they found that species which relied on a class of chemicals called carotenoids to tint their feathers fared worse when there was more radioactivity around. Intriguingly, that did not apply to birds that used melanin, another pigment, in their plumage, nor to those that employed iridescence—which is a result of the structure of feathers, rather than their chemistry.Carotenoids serve at least two biological roles. They are pigments - the orange in carrots and oranges, the red in peppers and tomatoes, and the pink in flamingo feathers and salmon - and are antioxidants that protect DNA from damage. In this case it appears that birds that use their carotenoids to make pretty red and yellow feathers end up leaving their DNA vulnerable to radiation damage. While life survived the disaster, the variety of life has changed. There is more about the rebound of Chernobyl wildlife at Accidental Blogger. (via Gene Expression)
The Wired Science blog reports on another science article in The Economist about modeling life on the computer. David Harel of the Weizmann Institute, for example, has been working on a computer simulation of the nematode C. elegans. But will it be a true representation of the original animal?
Indeed, he proposes to evaluate the result using an updated version of the Turing test. This was devised by Alan Turing, an early computer scientist, to identify whether a machine is capable of thought. The original test proposes that a person be presented with a suitable interface—say, a keyboard and a screen—through which to communicate. If the operator cannot tell the difference between talking to another person through this interface and talking to a computer, then the computer can be argued to be thinking. Dr Harel's version is a little more challenging. He wants to test whether scientists well versed in the ways of C. elegans could tell his computerised version from the real thing. So far, the distinction is obvious, but it may not always remain so.That and more was discussed at a recent conference organized by Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England. Their website has more on their work on computational biology, computational ecology, and nature-inspired computation.
A post on Metafilter rounds up a bunch of links on the "double muscle" mutations in the protein myostatin. Humans, dogs, cattle, and mice that carry two mutated copies of the gene have hulk-like muscles.
Eye on DNA links to a Futures in Biotech podcast that interviews Dr. Svante Paabo about possible reconstruction of a complete Neanderthal genome.
Many women - perhaps more than half - have four different photopigments in their retinas rather than the standard three carried by most men. Cognitive Daily reprints a 2005 post on a study that shows women with four photopigments appear to perceive color differently from men and women with only three photopigments .
Mind Hacks links to a freely available article in Nature Clinical Practice Neurology about the potential for RNA interference (RNAi) technology to be used as therapy for neurodegenerative diseases. If you aren't sure what RNAi is, read the background information at Mind Hacks first.
The new podcast from the American Chemical Society, Science Elements, includes a regular report on the latest in biochemistry. The June 27/July 3 episode reports on extracting a novel mucin glycoprotein from the masses nuisance jellyfish that clog seawater intake pipes and contaminate beaches. The mucusy protein has potentially many uses - from cosmetics to new antibiotics. If you don't want to read the technical article in the Journal of Natural Products, the New York Times has an article about the report.
In other natural materials news, scientists have made a glue that combines portions of gecko and mussel adhesive. The result - called "geckel" - is a reversible adhesive (think sticky note) that still strongly binds under water. It has many potential uses, from water resistant bandages to consumer and military products. It will be the cover story on the July 19th issue of Nature.
The Beam Me Up blog links to a new MIT study that identifies the mechanism behind fear. The article in Nature Neuroscience reports that interfering with the appropriate enzyme in the hippocampus region of the brain actually results in the extinction of fear learned in a particular context. As Science Blog notes, this research might eventually be used to treat post traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.
For even more biology-related posts, check out this weeks blog carnivals: Gene Genie at Med Journal Watch and Tangled Bank at The Voltage Gate.
Tags:genetics, biotechnology, neuroscience